Monday, May 2, 2011

On Bin Laden's Death

The CIA/Special Forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden yesterday was one of those once-in-a-decade shocks to the global system that sweeps all other news aside and provokes genuine emotional reactions from people around the world. There is also a very real chance that Bin Laden's death will alter the course of geopolitical history in a way that no event since 9/11 itself has done. So, as you might expect, I've been thinking about it quite a bit, and when I think about something for long enough I eventually have to put my thoughts down on paper. Here's my take.

For Americans, the raid represented the first and possibly the last concrete, unambiguous victory in the Global War on Terror, a war that has been poorly defined and haphazardly conducted for nearly ten years now. In Abottabad, America finally achieved one of the major goals it set out to accomplish when it first invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The fact that the United States spent almost a decade pursuing bin Laden and, during that time, became mired in two wars of debatable utility and enormous cost only makes the news more welcome across the entire American political spectrum. For conservatives, Osama's death was a vindication of their expenditures of blood and treasure; for liberals, it was a sign that such misguided efforts will soon be winding down. Neither view is correct, but this doesn't change the reasons why President Obama's announcement was greeted with some mixture of relief, cloture, patriotism, and pride for a newfound national efficacy.

Yes, some of the celebratory displays were over-the-top. On a human level, expressing any jubilation at the death of another person is discomforting, no matter how long their list of earthly sins ran. For some people who are deeply connected to the victims of al-Qaeda attacks, the desire for retribution and the joy of cloture is eminently understandable. But for those who are removed from tragedy by either time or distance, I sincerely hope that the overt displays of patriotism (echoes of "America! F*** yeah!" abound on campus and online last night, despite the phrase's semi-ironic origins in Team America: World Police) and the metaphorical dancing on bin Laden's grave give way to some much-needed national introspection.

We need to reflect on the death of bin Laden, for the simple reason that his life significantly altered the course of our history. With his passing, we now have the chance to change things ourselves, and for the better this time. For the past ten years, American foreign policy has to varying degrees been defined in opposition to Islamic extremism. This posture served us well in dealing with the immediate questions posed by 9/11 ("How should we intervene to remove the Taliban in Afghanistan?") but failed to provide a coherent overall direction to American diplomacy. This was because opposition to terrorism, like opposition to communism during the Cold War, is an absolutist stance--its internal logic dictates that no transgression can be tolerated anywhere in the world. When the enemy was a certain political system that can be adopted by national governments, this was barely manageable; when it is transnational terrorist groups and the governments that harbor them, it quickly proved impossible. After the death of the man whose attacks sparked the Global War on Terror, the chance to redefine (or, more accurately, define) the United States' role in the world is an opportunity that President Obama should jump at.

Here's to hoping that role is governed by humility, pragmatism, and a firm sense of American ideals. Many people took bin Laden's death as a sign of reasserted American power--a daring helicopter raid conducted with extreme precision by the military's finest soldiers, all based on excellent intelligence collected from a range of sources. Indeed, the operation was all of these things, and in an ideal world this is how the U.S. security complex would function every day. But the Abottabad raid should not be viewed as a sign of American omnipotence; in fact, it indicates the exact opposite. It took ten years for a special task force at the world's best intelligence agency to track down the world's most wanted man, using information plucked from detainees who were captured in two war zones where his organization was active. The outcomes of those wars are still uncertain, and both have been prosecuted only at great cost to the country in blood and treasure. To me, these facts indicate that the world is extremely complex and that America can impose its will only through concerted, prolonged efforts that do not yield quick or easy rewards.

It is deceptive, then, to hold up the bin Laden assassination as an example of how the U.S. can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, wherever it wants, however it wants. It took far more than 79 Navy SEALs, a few helicopters, some good intelligence work, and one tiny violation of Pakistani sovereignty to kill Osama bin Laden. We should be proud of the fact that we finally got the job done, and hope that the removal of al-Qaeda's spiritual leader and founding father will shake the organization right down to its قاعدة--literally, Arabic for "foundation" or "base." But we must remember that catching him was much more expensive than we think. Once we factor in opportunity costs--what else America could have done with the financial and diplomatic capital we expended chasing him and his band of terrorists--it becomes obvious that foreign policy is a series of tradeoffs, not the constant application of limitless American might. When it comes to stopping the next generation of terrorists, we may do better to apply the ages-old proverb that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Vegas Story

I have to preface this story by saying that the night before we drove to Vegas, Holler and I were discussing casino poker. He questioned my gambling credentials, things escalated, and eventually I laid down an ultimatum:

"Holler, I know I'm going to win money in Vegas, and I'm so sure of it that I'll bet you $5 that I win $200 or more."

He accepted. Disregarding the faulty logic of that bet for a second (if I made money, I'd probably be more than happy to part with $5, and if I lost money, I would probably just regard it as $5 more of gambling losses, which would be pretty accurate), it was probably a good bet for him. Unless I was overly risky, I would have to earn $200 over the course of the night, since I wasn't about to try to win $200 on one hand of blackjack or poker. In the morning, I didn't think much of it, I just figured that $5 wasn't much in the grand scheme of things. But as we rolled into Vegas, I remembered something Ernest Hemingway once said: "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That'll teach you to keep your mouth shut." I set out to follow my idol's words and win at least $200 or going broke trying.

We had booked a room at the Motel 6 in Vegas, which is probably the only Motel 6 in the world with a glimmering animated digital billboard. It has the dubious distinction of being wedged between the MGM Grand, the Hooters hotel/casino, and the Las Vegas Airport. After checking in, we got our Vegas backstories straight: Stefan, the most foreign-looking of us, was given the deliberately vague title of "importer/exporter." John Holler was mysteriously involved in "logistics," and I (the best-dressed out of all of us) was the "legal consultant." We all put on our outfits and started mentally preparing to hit the town.

Fast forward to dinner at a nice little pizza place, where we got some Vegas advice from the chefs. They told us to go away from the Strip to a more affordable part of Vegas where the locals gambled. One of the chefs was pretty adamant that we do that--he said something along the lines of, "They've got midget strippers with one arm and no teeth over there! You HAVE to go, it's sooooo skeezy!"

We promptly decided to ignore his advice and do the touristy thing, which was to walk the entire length of the Strip and go to the Sahara, the only casino on the Strip with $1/$2 Hold 'Em and $1 blackjack. We sat down at a blackjack table and I lost $20 pretty quickly--we were all taking a beating from the dealer. It was impossible to count cards, those MIT kids must've been wicked smaht. Anyway, after I busted out of blackjack I wandered over to the poker room. I tried to buy in with $60, only to find out that the minimum buy-in was $100. I headed back to the ATM and withdrew some cash, got my chips, and rolled up to the table itching to play.

The table itself was pretty average--your typical low-stakes game. To my left was a kid who looked about 23 and talked more about poker than he knew--he would analyze each hand after it was played, which was a little unnerving. To my right was an older guy whose haircut looked a little ex-military. He barely spoke the entire time. I laid low, folded my hands, and stayed out of a few big pots as I tried to get a feel for the table.

On the fifth or sixth hand after I sat down, I got dealt the 10-Q of spades as hole cards. I called from the small blind and saw the flop: a jack of spades, a king of spades, and a blank. I was first to act and I was sitting on an open-ended straight flush, meaning I had about a 64% chance of hitting either the best possible straight or probably the best possible flush. I bet $5, and everyone folded down except a Mexican guy two seats to my left, who called.

The turn came, and it was the ace of spades. That gave me a royal straight flush, the absolute best hand in the game. I was a lock to win this hand, so I checked. I'd like to say I kept my poker face and was under control, but I was pretty excited when the Mexican guy bet $25 at me. I checked my cards two or three times to make sure that I wasn't hallucinating and then called. The river came, and I don't know what it was because it was irrelevant. He bet at me again, and this time I re-raised him $50, putting nearly all of the $100 I had just withdrawn in this one pot (this actually wasn't a gutsy move, because I knew I had won the pot, but it was still cool to see it sitting there). He smartly folded, and I flipped over my cards to reveal the royal flush. The entire table reacted like I had just walked on water--some people literally jumped back in amazement. The dealer, who I can only describe as an older man who looked kind of like Woodhouse from Archer, was the calmest of them, and just said something along the lines of, "Well, that's a pretty nice hand you got there. Let's see what kind of bonus that's going to pay out."

Fig. 1--The man who dealt me a royal flush.

The pit boss came over and verified my cards--I think they reviewed security footage of the table, because it took them a while to get back after that and the whole game had to stop. Finally, the pit boss came back over, congratulated me, and said that I had won the royal flush jackpot. [Aside: Casinos often have jackpots to encourage people to take insane risks by chasing the best hands--straight flushes, full houses, four of a kind, etc. The jackpot builds bigger and bigger until someone eventually gets that hand while playing, and then it resets. It's kind of like Megabucks, but more legit.] Nobody playing poker in the Sahara had hit a royal flush in nearly 2 years, so the jackpot I won had had plenty of time to grow. When the pit boss announced the size of the jackpot, I was astonished. Take a chance and guess how big it was, keeping in mind that I was happy to win $200 at the beginning of the night. Go ahead, I'll even put in a little spoiler alert.


Four hundred and seventy five dollars. $475. PBS should hire me, because not only did I meet my fundraising goal for the night inside of 10 minutes, I doubled it. I thanked the dealer profusely and gave him a $66 tip, explaining that we had traveled to Vegas on Route 66, and that we were staying in a Motel 6, and that I had worn number 6 in high school baseball and college soccer, and that 6 was my lucky number and that I wasn't some Satan-worshipper but I was pretty sure that the number 6 did hold some sort of special significance for me because wasn't that the sixth hand you dealt me? I think my little John Nash rant actually scared him a little, but whatever. That guy was awesome.

Anyway, I got $375 in cash and the rest in chips, so I was the alpha dog of the table with over $200 in chips. On the very next hand, I think everyone was hoping to get a few of those house chips for themselves. I eventually got into a betting war with the kid to my left. Unfortunately for him, I had a nut straight (the best possible straight, and in this case the best possible hand because there were no flushes or pairs on the board), and I took him down for another $50. Woodhouse was just handing me money--with him dealing, Simple Jack could've made $200 sitting in my chair.

Sportsmanship be damned; after that, I did what any lucky jackass would do, and called my buddies (who were still at the blackjack table) up on my phone:

Me: "Hey man, guess how much I'm up?"
Holler: "I dunno, 20 bucks?"
Me: "No, I'm up 500, still gonna keep playing though..."
Holler: "Wait, did you say five HUNDRED?"
Me: "Yeah, it's not a big deal or anything..."
Holler: [excited expletives]
Me: "Alright, I'll catch you later, gotta play this hand."

Or maybe I played it slightly less coolly and left my chips on the table, told the dealer I was going to the bathroom, and ran across the casino to find them and celebrate. I forget... ;)

From there, the night just went downhill--not in a bad way, just in the way that I knew I wasn't going to get that lucky again. Nobody at the table wanted to bet against me unless they had the absolute nuts, so I won a lot of blinds and lost some bigger pots. Woodhouse left the table and was replaced by a taciturn Asian woman (I don't mean to be racist when I describe people by their ethnicities alone; the fact is that in casinos, there's not a whole lot of talking or interaction so I can't really describe anyone beyond what they looked like. Unless you're wearing something really outlandish, even by the standards of Vegas, that's probably going to be your race or who you look like. The longest conversation I had with anyone at a table was about two minutes, with a former FBI field agent who sat down next to me and used his old badge as a card protector. He was the most intimidating man I've ever met and a major reason I left the table).

I made about $40 during the next hour of poker and as the table was winding down, I cashed out and headed over to the blackjack tables to rejoin Holler and Stefan. Big Stef had hit a nice little streak of his own and managed to pull in $25 over the course of the night. I lost $7 playing blackjack over a couple hours, but the experience alone was worth it. We played at the loudest table in the house--four Mexican guys (five, if you count Stefan), Holler, and me all shouting at the dealer to bust on every single hand. My "variable-risk" blackjack strategy--alternating $1 and $5 bets--actually paid off for a while, even when I did really stupid stuff like double down on 13s, 14s, and 15s.

When all was said and done, I left the Sahara with just under $500, which was more than enough to treat Holler and Stefan to a taxi ride back home and a $2.99 midnight-6 AM breakfast special at Hooters. Looking back on that meal, if Gandhi had ended one of his hunger strikes next to the Hooters restaurant and was on the verge of dying, I would probably tell him hike up the catwalk and at least try to make it to the MGM Grand. The food was that bad. It was about 5 AM at this point and the sun was starting to come up, so the walk back from Hooters to the hotel room was particularly epic. That thing they say about losing track of time in casinos is totally true--we spent about 5 hours in the Sahara, but it felt like 3, tops. We woke up and checked out at 11 AM. I counted my money at least three times between the time I woke up and the time I took a shower, just to make sure it all wasn't a dream.

It wasn't. And the best part is that I still made Holler pay me that $5.

P.S.--In case you're wondering what I did with the money, I spent it in the nerdiest way possible: at Best Buy, upgrading my Mac OS X from "Tiger" to "Snow Leopard" and getting a 2 terabyte external hard drive, Mac keyboard, and wireless mouse. I also built a mantel for my fireplace (yes, ladies, my room has a fireplace), added a custom platform for my old-school rear-projection TV, and stocked my fridge with plenty of Albertson's finest "groceries." Thanks, Vegas!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Road Trip: The Western Half

Continued from Part I...

Day 6: Chicago, IL to Brandon, SD

We left Holler's house early and headed over to Stefan's for a big home-cooked breakfast. This was fortunate, because we were headed to the Wisconsin State Fair, and if we had arrived hungry we probably would have eaten some of the most disgusting foods on the planet. After the drive, during which the only noteworthy event was that the A/C appeared to die and scared all of us, only to come back to life moments later, we got out to explore the fairgrounds. State fairs are some of the most interesting collections of people and Americana that you'll ever see, and Wisconsin totally lived up to if not exceeded every stereotype you could think of. If you're looking for a place with massive numbers of obese people in overalls, with VERY serious livestock competitions, with entire pavilions devoted to one food item (seriously, an entire warehouse-sized building selling only cream puffs), a place with three different varieties of pig racing, with fried anything, a place where everyone looks like they belong on People of Wal-Mart, look no further than the Wisconsin State Fair. We left after about three hours, which makes sense because three hours is about the most time you want to spend in a zoo--any longer, and you become one of the animals.

To say our itinerary for the first two days was ambitious would be like saying Arnold Schwarzenegger is "in shape." We covered 1330 miles in the first 48 hours after Chicago, and a lot of those miles came after the fair, when we drove across the entire state of Minnesota. We stopped for the first of many burger dinners at a place in Rochester, MN, a city whose main attraction is the Mayo Clinic. The restaurant was rated highly on Yelp, an app on Stefan's iPhone that we used to search for places to eat in most every city. It never led us astray--the place in Rochester had several unique kinds of burger, including one where the cheese was inserted into the patty and melted as the burger cooked. It was a good little pit stop, and after that we hit the road and wound up spending the first night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We had booked a hotel there earlier in the day, which was lucky because we rolled into town around 1 AM and were completely exhausted.

Day 7: Sioux Falls, SD to Denver, CO

On this day, I think I discovered my own limit of how long I can remain in a moving vehicle. To give you an idea of just how much driving we did, it was on this day that we started calling my car "Stad," short for Amistad. We woke up early and took I-90 across the entire state of South Dakota, which is just one of the most devastatingly boring drives you'll ever encounter. The most interesting thing about that state is the roadside advertising, which starts about 200 miles from any particular attraction. Instead of using billboards, a lot of companies just paint their ad on the side of an 18-wheeler trailer and abandon it in a field next to the road. Seriously, the best part of South Dakota was that we found a store that sold sweet stickers and we started amassing a sticker collection on the roof carrier. Actually, I take it back--the sticker collection started at the Wisconsin State Fair, when I got a free sticker from a radio station called The Hog (classic rock).

From Road Trip

The Badlands, one of the only good things about South Dakota.

When I hate on South Dakota, I'm really only hating on 95% of the state though, because the southwestern 5% is gorgeous. We went to the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, which are both beautiful in their own way. The Badlands is obviously a place of incredible natural beauty, whereas Rushmore is more of a human achievement and a work of art. We saw them both within a span of 4 hours, and then kept on driving all the way down through Wyoming to Denver, where we also arrived at 1 AM. Wyoming is so rural it makes South Dakota look like New York City. You can do whatever you want there just because there are so few people around. We drove past a town that had a population of exactly 1, according to the roadside sign. However, Wyoming is actually a beautiful state, especially at sunset. I think these photos say it better than I can:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Anyway, we arrived in Denver way late and crashed with John's cousin, who was awesome for hosting us even though we only saw her for about 15 minutes total. In two days, we had covered almost half of the distance from Chicago, which was somewhat insane but also gave us more time to enjoy the next few days.

Day 8: Denver, CO to Moab, UT

Denver was the first time we could really sleep in on the entire trip, so we did just that. After waking up and actually showering and getting dressed properly for the first time in a couple days, we walked around downtown Denver for a little while. The city is pretty cool because it has a giant pedestrian mall that is completely closed off to all traffic except for city buses which take you up and down the mall for free. The state capitol is also right at the end of this street, and when we were there they had an outdoor market set up on a square between city hall and the capitol. There were also (randomly) some ping pong tables out there sponsored by ESPN, so Stefan and I played a game of ping pong with an amazing backdrop:

After spending a couple hours in downtown, we took a short drive to Golden to tour the headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company. This is probably the closest I will come to understanding how Muslims feel at Mecca, because in my opinion Coors Light is one of the best cost-effective beers in the world (I think I've referred to it earlier on this blog as the "Cadillac of College Beer," and I stand by that statement). As most connoisseurs know, Coors is brewed with water fresh from the Rockies, which explains why each beer has that cold, fresh, Rocky Mountain taste. As you might imagine, most of the tour was this kind of propaganda, but it did teach us a little about the beermaking process, too.

After a quick stop at a local bar so Stefan and Holler could enjoy some $1 pints of Coors, we started our cross-Rockies journey that afternoon (with me behind the wheel). This segment turned out to be pretty eventful, because we had no idea just how overloaded the car really was. Going up hills of 7% grade or more, we had a hard time keeping up with 18-wheelers. There were extended stretches where the most we could do on an interstate highway was 25-35 mph. Stad, the little engine that could if there ever was one, eventually made it over the hills and to the Glenwood Canyon portion of I-70, which was absolutely unreal. Part of the cool thing about this trip was that we got to drive by or across a lot of man-made wonders, the kind of stuff that I used to only see on Modern Marvels (seriously, the History Channel is awesome), and that was definitely the case with Glenwood Canyon. I was too busy trying to navigate all the turns to take pictures, but Stefan and Holler got some good ones that I'll try to link to soon.

The day ended well, too, because we were able to find a youth hostel in Moab with a private 3-person room that we rented for $30/night total. This is actually a good time to discuss our lodging arrangements: we originally planned to stay exclusively at Holiday Inns, because Stefan had stayed in one all summer and accumulated a ton of rewards points. However, the reason Stefan was able to do that was because he was working for Allstate and they were paying for his housing. At the end of the summer, Allstate claimed that they deserved the rewards points, not Stefan. Besides causing us to curse every time we saw a Holiday Inn that we could no longer afford to stay at, this affected our trip in several ways. We wound up staying in budget places that I would argue gave the trip more character than if we had just stayed in a Holiday Inn all the time. For example, in Vegas, we got a room at a Motel 6 right across from the MGM Grand (and next door to Hooters). We would have missed out on this if we hadn't gotten screwed over by Holiday Inn and Allstate, so I guess it was actually a blessing in disguise. So, to summarize, when we found a hostel in Moab for really cheap it came with a sense of accomplishment that we wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

Day 9: Moab, UT to Torrey, UT

This day was mainly just to tour Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park. I could describe how sweet they were, or I could just show you pictures:

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

From Road Trip

Day 10: Torrey, UT to Prescott, AZ

Another day of parks; this time, the main attraction was the Grand Canyon:

As we were leaving the canyon, we saw one of the craziest things I think I'll ever see. A hailstorm hit us while we were at a gas station, so we had to wait it out (apparently it's normal for hailstorms to hit in the middle of August). It passed, but we caught up to it again as we were driving around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the storm clouds were really only on one side of the road--on the other side, it was sunny and there was a giant, low-lying rainbow. Splitting the two images was the road we were driving on, which extended forever in front of the car through the desert. If I had a wide-angle lens, I would've stopped and tried to capture it all, but I'm not about to forget it either. It was the kind of scene that I only thought was possible in Photoshop, but it was actually there in reality. Crazy stuff.

That night, we met up with my high school buddy and teammate Alex Yates, who lives in Prescott with his fiance. He showed us around town for a bit and we had a lot of quality catching-up time. It was good to see him, but it was also a little bit of a wake-up call for me to see him with a house, a fiance, a steady job, and all of the other little things that constitute an adult life. I guess I'll have to get on that ASAP.

Day 11: Prescott, AZ to Las Vegas, NV

My Vegas gambling exploits warrant a separate post, which I'll put up tomorrow. But on the way there, we stopped to see the Hoover Dam, another thing that fit under my "Modern Marvels" category. Security was really tight along the dam and traffic was pretty heavy, so it took a while to cross. We stopped and explored for a little bit, but didn't have the time or the money to take a tour. Still, we didn't need one to appreciate the magnitude of the structure. I'll always have a healthy amount of respect for whoever saw the Colorado and thought, "Hey, we can tame this river," or the guy who saw an exposed piece of rock in South Dakota and envisioned Mt. Rushmore. Part of the reason people keep coming to these places is because you can't really understand them until you've seen them in real life, and I'm glad we were able to fit the Hoover Dam into the schedule. They're opening a new bridge to bypass the road over the dam in the fall--traffic was a problem, but it's mainly for security reasons I think--so my car will be one of the last to pass over the dam. That's pretty cool to think about.

Day 12: Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA

The last day involved us pulling a Katy Perry and waking up in Vegas. I counted my money from the last night about 3 times just to make sure that I wasn't dreaming the whole time. Still full from the Hooters buffet (God, I hope I never have to write that sentence again), we checked out of the hotel at 11 and drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean to stay with my friend Alex Sigoloff. His mom has connections, and hooked us up with 4 free tickets to a Dodgers game about 10 rows behind first base--the good luck continues. After that, we went to a famous LA restaurant called the Apple Pan, whose entire business model is based on "doing simple things excellently" (that's their motto, I think). Anyway, they only serve basic American food but use the highest-quality ingredients and recipes. It was so absurdly good that I may consider driving into LA just to go back.

Road Trip Pics

For those of you I haven't talked to, the road trip was a complete and utter success. The full summary is in the works right now, but here are the best pictures I took. Obviously, I couldn't really take pictures while I was driving, so Holler and Stefan have some of the better ones. Also, since this blog will kind of be in limbo once I tell the story of the road trip, I might have to think up a new "theme" for it other than chronicling my travels, or just use it to share short stories and pictures of random stuff that I do.

Anyway, thanks for reading and until next time, these pictures will have to whet your appetites for the full story of the road trip.

The Road Trip: The Eastern Half

This is a massive post, but to summarize it all pretty quickly, the road trip went better than I ever could have imagined. I would have been happy if Holler, Stefan, and I had just arrived in California safely and if my car had made it across the Rockies in one piece. Instead, I got so much more than that. I could tell you all the reasons I/we got ridiculously lucky, but to make things clear let me just do a day-by-day breakdown:

Day 1: Bar Harbor, ME to New York City

I got out of bed, showered, and ate by 8:00 AM, which for me is a major accomplishment. After saying goodbye, I drove off. It wasn't until I got to Bangor and turned to go south on I-95 that the magnitude of the journey really hit me. To give you an idea of how mentally unprepared I was, I only had about 50 songs on my "Road Trip" playlist and I ran through all of them by the time I hit Portland.

The driving was pretty uneventful--compared to LA drivers, Bostonians are pretty tame and I drove around the city anyway. After getting stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Cross-Bronx Expressway (which has to be the single worst road in America, I'm not kidding and I'm actually somewhat qualified to make that statement now), I rolled into my friend and beer league teammate Chris McGuire's place in Manhattan around 5 PM, for a total of 9 hours of driving. My day was far from over, though. We wandered around Central Park for a bit and took a whirlwind walking tour of the city. I'm pretty good at judging things like cities and people quickly, and my impression of New York was overwhelmingly positive. The city is full of activity and diversity, and even though it's really expensive it seems like it would be worth it to live there just for the opportunities you can come across. NY city-dwellers seem to be driven and successful at the same time, if that makes sense--like, they've already done something right to make it to New York, but now they're trying to make it big in New York.

Having judged an entire city and its people in under 15 minutes, I did some quality catching up with Chris at an outdoor cafe. I'll spare you readers all the minute details, but a recurring conversation topic on the road trip was the ongoing controversy over beer league teams that I should probably explain. When people started going abroad as juniors last year, our team (the Men's Union, or MU, pronounced "moo") faced a bit of a predicament. In order to continue to field a seven-person team in beer league (you pitch to your own team, so you don't need a pitcher or catcher), we had to recruit a bunch of new players during both the fall and the spring semesters. Some of these players were pretty good, some were average replacements, and some were striking out multiple times per game, which is quite an accomplishment given that the pitcher is trying to let you hit the ball.

Now, everybody who went abroad is back for senior year, in addition to all of the new kids we recruited. This means we have exactly 14 players, which is way too much for one team but the bare minimum for two teams. The question facing the MU is thus twofold: a) Should we divide into two teams? and b) If so, how? We've pretty much decided to split up, but the major issue is how to evenly divide the teams. This "how to divide the teams" question was the subject of a giant message thread this summer, complete with analyses of players' skills, ideas about what makes a good beer league team, excessively legalistic arguments, and complex compromise schemes--basically, everything other than an actual solution. Both teams want me to play for them, so my team affiliation was a major topic of conversation in New York and in the car after Chicago (both John and Stefan play; Stefan is actually the commissioner this year). I'll let you know how this one turns out.

Anyway, so back in New York, Chris and I hung out and got dinner at an awesome outdoor cafe. We then met up with another one of my Pomona friends, Alex Efron, who was celebrating his 21st birthday. Although I basically had the same conversation with him as I just had with Chris (discussing the past semester/summer and the beer league issue), it was good to see him again. We stayed out until 3 AM, which meant I was awake and active for 19 hours. On the subway ride home, my body was arguing with itself over whether I should get some real late-night New York pizza or just collapse and go to sleep. I eventually chose to collapse in exhaustion for a solid 6 hours. It's too bad, though--a good pizza would have really solidified my opinion on New York as an awesome city.

Day 2: NYC to Pittsburgh-ish

I woke up at 9:30 and wandered into Chris' kitchen to find two maids at work cleaning. Chris actually had to go to the dentist that morning, so I was all alone with the maids in the apartment. I needed to get an early start driving, so I had said goodbye the previous night. I just packed my things and left, which was kind of weird but I guess it had to be done. I set out to drive across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I quickly found out that driving in these states is just about as boring as you could possibly imagine. I started playing games to amuse myself, games like "How long can I keep the car on cruise control because there's no traffic or even anything interesting worth slowing down for, just miles and miles of farms?" The answer, actually, is about 250 miles, which is pretty amazing considering that my car can only go about 300 miles on one tank of gas.

Because I-80 was so soul-crushingly boring, I decided to take a detour to Pittsburgh to liven things up a bit. This road was a little more white-trashy interesting--almost exactly what you'd picture central Pennyslvania being like. How interesting, you ask? Well, I saw not one, but two drive-through strip clubs. Although I was really curious about how these businesses worked, logistically speaking (do the strippers come in your car? Do you drive by a window? Are the strippers in central PA so bad that they can only be viewed for a few seconds, without leaving your vehicle?) I didn't feel the need to actually spend the money and find out.

While in PA, I also had the first "oh-shit-my-car-is-going-to-die-on-me" moments of the road trip. Driving up a slight hill on I-80, my car suddenly started to lose power and refused to do more than 60. I pulled over and checked for overheating, but I saw nothing so I visited a local mechanic. The guy couldn't really find anything either, but he suggested that I replace my fuel filter ASAP. I took care of that the next day and it never happened again, so the only in-trip maintenance occurred on the third day.

Toward the evening, I made it to Pittsburgh and explored the city a little bit. It's a really cool city, but confusing to navigate because you're pretty much always next to a river and not sure which one. Architecturally, the city is pretty uniformly Gothic and steel town-y, but there's a surprising amount of green space. Also, Pittsburghers are some of the most helpful people I encountered on the trip--always willing to give directions, advice, and just generally help out a stranger to the city. There weren't too many highlights from this portion of the trip, because it was just me exploring an unknown city. I checked into a cheap motel off the highway just outside of the city and got a really good night's sleep.

Day 3: Pittsburgh-ish to South Bend, IN

I started the third day off a little early so I could go to an auto shop and replace the fuel filter. That took about half an hour, and I was on the road by 10 AM and glad to put the issue behind me. The drive to South Bend went by really quickly--there was almost no traffic, and I made a pit stop in Oberlin. I figured that a college town would have some good, cheap food places and I was right. The campus is actually incredibly beautiful--very green, sunny, and warm, definitely not what you would expect in northern Ohio. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and jog around the town/campus (thus exercising and exploring at the same time), a trick I started doing in Europe with Sam, Dan, & Zack. I felt much better after the run and arrived to South Bend feeling fresh and clean.

The reason I stopped in South Bend was to visit my grandfather. I haven't seen him in a while so I stayed for a night in his guest bedroom. It was nice, we went out to dinner and drove around the Notre Dame campus where he used to teach, but it was an understandably quiet night and nothing really story-worthy happened. It was good to say hi, though, and we did watch a sweet documentary about sailing. Overall, though, a quiet day and night, almost a rest after the first two days.

Day 4: South Bend, IN to Chicago, IL

I woke up at 10 AM and worked out in the retirement home's fitness center. It was kind of absurd because I was down there doing a P90X workout next to a senior yoga class and a couple octogenarians on the treadmill. Anyway, Opa and I ate some lunch and then I said goodbye and headed for Chi-city.

The drive to Chicago was one of my favorite stretches of the trip, not just because it only took a couple hours but because it was really scenic. When you come over the I-90 bridge into Illinois, the Chicago skyline just appears out of nowhere and you get to watch it get closer and closer and bigger and bigger for the rest of the drive. Also, during the last bit on Lakeshore Drive, the Blue Angels were practicing for the Chicago Air Show the next day, doing smoke shows and buzzing the road a few times. It was really difficult not to be distracted by either the buildings, which I was stoked to see for the first time, or the planes, which are just awesome anytime. Together, staring at big buildings and fast planes really took me back to when I was about ten, and I was fascinated with that kind of stuff. Suffice to say that ten-year-old Nick would have forced his parents to move to Chicago if he had gone during Air Show weekend.

I found John Holler's house without any trouble and parked right outside, which was a minor miracle (it also happened in New York, where the only available space for 4 blocks around was right in front of Chris' apartment). It was great to see Holler again because Holler's my boy and it had been over a year at that point since we hung out. I set up camp and met his family and then we went on a giant walking tour of the city. Holler actually knows a ton about Chicago because he worked for the city's economic development agency and his dad is a real estate lawyer who works for the city, so the tour was super-informative. We hit up a deep-dish pizza place and then met up with Stefan and some of his friends at a south side bar. Stefan had literally finished his summer internship that day, so he was pumped to be back in the city (he had been living in the suburbs in an extended-stay Holiday Inn, which sounded pretty miserable) and with his friends rather than the other interns. I hadn't seen him in over a year, either (we went abroad during different semesters), so we conversed a ton and had the first of many beer league discussions. It took a while to get back to Holler's house (he lives in Evanston, on the opposite side of the city), so the ride back was similar to NYC in that both of us were nodding off on the train at 3 AM. We went to sleep and woke up at 10 to go see....

Day 5: The Chicago Air Show

Apparently, locals don't like the Chicago Air Show. Actually, that's not accurate; it's more like they're ambivalent toward it. "It's just the same planes every year," one of Stefan's friends said.

This is one thing that Chicagoans couldn't be more wrong about. The air show is sweet. It's a collection of military and stunt planes doing insane tricks at low altitude on a beach on Lake Michigan in the middle of summer. What more could you ask for? Holler and I filled a cooler with ice and some Goose Island Brewing Company beers (their pale ale is one of my new favorites) and took the bus to the beach. We sat there for three hours and took in the sun, the planes, the water, the awesomeness, the patriotism, etc. They had a giant loudspeaker system set up on the beach, so a DJ-announcer type person was calling out the names of each plane and the tricks they were performing as it happened, and playing 80s rock and samples from the Top Gun soundtrack during the whole thing. The showcase of air power was incredible, kind of like a giant Cold War parade through Red Square, but American and in the sky. I'm sure that some IR scholars (Bacevich, at least) could make an argument that the Chicago Air Show was really indicative of the military-industrial complex and is actually a bad thing for society, but he's wrong--he didn't see how sweet those planes were.

We walked home and on the way, we randomly ran into Aaron Hosansky, my old TSL sports editor, who was visiting the city with his girlfriend. The rest of the day was pretty much devoted to packing--John had to pack his clothes, Stefan had to pack everything, and we all had to find a way to make it fit in my car. The solution was this:

From Road Trip

That picture was taken in Arches National Park, but it pretty much captures what we did to my car. We put a rooftop carrier on a car with 106 horsepower and loaded it up with luggage. The backseat was full of backpacks and day bags, and the trunk was full of suitcases as well. The car weighed 500 pounds more than it should have, looked absurd, would probably lose to a Model T in a drag race or going uphill, and we still made it to California. We laid low on Saturday night, knowing that the next day was going to be a long one. I'll continue the summary in part II...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ma' Sha Allah

New window decal/good luck charm. By the will of God, we'll get to California.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Road Trip Itinerary: It's Actually Happening

This map has been about four years in the making. Ever since I decided to go to school in California, the idea of a cross-country road trip has been brewing in my mind, slowly fermenting like a delicious IPA (mmm... beer). For me, I've never really seen the middle of the country other than the occasional airport. I've visited my grampa in South Bend, Indiana and gone to a Cubs game once, but that doesn't really count--when I talk about a road trip, I'm talking about seeing cornfields and mountains and all that natural gorgeousness I usually fly over on the way to school.

Unfortunately, I lost my means of doing a road trip when I totaled my car on some black ice during my senior year of high school. There's a long story about why this shouldn't have happened--my tires were bald because I thought it was ridiculous to put $400 worth of tires onto a car that I only paid $800 for, and who expects black ice in late April?--but that's irrelevant now. The point is that I flipped my car sideways into some trees and was lucky to walk away without getting hurt--I think I even played baseball the next day. But for the rest of senior year and the next two summers, I didn't have a ride to school, work, or prom. The accident forced me to drive a delivery van more than I would have liked (though, thankfully, not to prom) and put my road trip plans on indefinite hold.

It took me about two years to earn enough money to pay for a new car, new (more expensive) insurance, and all the other little costs associated with owning a vehicle. I could, in theory, have done this road trip at the end of last summer, but because I was going abroad for second semester I didn't want to have to deal with either a) driving back during the winter, or b) storing my car out west. Since I was already coming off traveling in the Middle East and Europe, I figured that a cross-country road trip would be the perfect way to cap off my summer and start senior year.

And here I am now, T-minus 4 days from beginning the trek on the map above. It's a 4176.78-mile journey through 18 states that will in theory take 12 days and just under 70 hours of driving. I don't have any driving buddies until after I get to Chicago, where I'm going to pick up John Holler and Stefan Castellanos. I haven't seen these guys for over a year because of study abroad, so it'll be awesome to finally be reunited. We're going to put a roof rack on my car to hold all of our stuff and cram three people into a Honda Civic. Only Holler and I can drive because my car is a stick-shift, so this should be interesting.

3 guys plus all of their luggage will fit in this car. Believe it.

We're going to hit up a lot of interesting places on the trip, including but not limited to the Chicago Air and Water Show, the Wisconsin State Fair, Mt. Rushmore/Badlands National Park, Denver/the world headquarters of the Coors Brewing Company, Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, Vegas, and Zyzyx, CA. Obviously, we'll find only the best roadside food to eat along the way. Thanks to Stefan's rewards points, we'll be staying almost exclusively at Holiday Inn/Holiday Inn Express locations, though I am looking forward to staying with Chris McGuire in NYC and Alex Yates in Prescott, AZ. We're capping everything off by going to a Dodgers game and moving into our dorms a week early (and perhaps doing some interesting dorm construction projects, too--more on that later).

So that's the plan. I don't know how much time and/or energy I'll have to write during the trip, but I promise to recap all the best stories afterward. Until then... to infinity, and beyond!